Spread out on the desk in Arn Tellem's office in suburban Los
Angeles, the mementos of his life have the disconnected quality
of pages torn at random from a diary. There's a DVD of The
Godfather, the film that, Tellem says, taught him everything he
needed to know about being a players' agent; a snapshot of his
three sports-mad sons, Mike, Matty and Eric; and an official mug
from Survivor, the show that Arn's wife, Nancy, the president of
CBS Entertainment, shepherded to boob-tube immortality. ("The
only episode of Survivor I ever sat through was the first
season's finale," Tellem confesses. "I had to--I was at the cast
party." The Eye network's First Hubby hates TV.)
There are also collectibles associated with three of Tellem's
biggest clients: a bobblehead doll of New York Yankees first
baseman Jason Giambi, a T-shirt bearing the name of Boston Red
Sox shortstop Nomar Garciaparra, and a can of Sprite embossed
with a likeness of Los Angeles Lakers guard Kobe Bryant. Nearby
is a copy of the book The Jew in American Sports, given to
Tellem at his bar mitzvah in 1966. ("Bar mitzvah age," Tellem
says in a high, gentle tone that seems to contain an apology and
a question mark, "is when a Jewish boy learns he has a better
chance of owning a professional sports team than of playing for
There are baseball cards of the ill-fated 1964 Philadelphia
Phillies, Tellem's favorite team during his boyhood on the Main
Line. There's a frayed Hank Greenberg card from APBA Major
League Baseball, the tabletop game to which Tellem lashed his
adolescence. (The card--which lists Hammerin' Hank's statistics
during the 1938 season, in which he smacked 58 home runs--is the
same one Tellem carried in the breast pocket of his suit at his
wedding, in 1979. "I wanted Hank to share the most important day
of my life," Tellem said then.)
In the midst of all this Tellemania is a reverse clock given to
him by Jerry Reinsdorf, owner of the Chicago Bulls and White
Sox. The timepiece counts down from five years--the length of
Tellem's commitment to continue working for SFX Entertainment,
which in 1999 paid more than $25 million for the agency he had
built up from nothing beginning in '89. As of midnight on
Sunday, the clock had two years, four months, nine days, one
hour and 46 seconds left until zero hour.
May 26, 2002
For Tellem, every tick is precious. "In life there are no
timeouts," he says. "The clock is always running." He has
savored every second since he had sextuple-bypass surgery 10
years ago. He was then the self-proclaimed Ted Williams of
cholesterol: His count was 400. Tellem was 38, only three years
younger than his father, a Philadelphia pathologist, had been
when he dropped dead of a heart attack. "I want to accomplish a
lot but know I might not have enough time," Tellem says. "The
fear is constantly in the recesses of my mind."
Tellem and I have been close friends for 40 years. We met when I
was in fifth grade, and we became charter members of a Wiffle
ball league in a friend's backyard. We still speak on the phone
every few weeks. The shy, buttoned-down wheeler-dealer with the
whinnying laugh may be the silliest person I know, but he
doesn't think he's silly, he thinks he's eminently sensible. He
knows exactly who he is and what he wants.
Reinsdorf says that he and Tellem have discussions, not
negotiations: "Arn is never threatening or confrontational. He
doesn't sell his players; he helps you decide if you really want
Yankees president Randy Levine calls Tellem "a problem-solver
rather than a problem-creator. He gives you his word and keeps
Oakland Athletics general manager Billy Beane gushes, "With Arn,
there's a friendly casualness, a high degree of trust and a
great amount of absurdity. In the middle of an intense deal,
he'll blurt out, 'My baseball fantasy league draft is coming up.
Got any suggestions?' He combines the intelligence and
steadfastness of Alan Dershowitz with the neurotic behavior of
In a profession rife with self-aggrandizing publicity-mongers,
Tellem is an efficient power broker who strives for
invisibility. "I hardly ever go to my players' games," he says.
"I can't get any work done there. I'd rather be in my office.
Agents who go to games just want to be seen."
Of course when you've represented 14 of the NBA's first-round
draft picks over the past two years and control 13% of the
players in the league--42 to be exact--you can afford to be
invisible. Tellem's basketball roster ranges from alltime great
Reggie Miller of the Indiana Pacers to current All-Stars Baron
Davis of the Charlotte Hornets, Tracy McGrady of the Orlando
Magic and Jermaine O'Neal of the Pacers. "The reputation of
sports agents is that they're vicious, cutthroat and quite
slimy," says the Seattle SuperSonics' Brent Barry, a Tellemaniac
for seven years. "The one thing Arn brings to the table is a
little decency. In a sea of great white sharks, he's a gefilte
Tellem's Grandma Fanny made splendid gefilte fish, and his
mother taught him to use his Judaism as a shield. She named him
Arn after a brave knight in the Prince Valiant comic strip.
"That Arn fought the Inquisition and then took 10 percent,"
Tellem deadpans. A deal between this Arn and a player buys--for
about 4% of the player's contract revenues and 10% of his
endorsement deals--Tellem's superb bartering and lawyering
skills. In an age in which NBA players' salaries average $4.5
million a season, Tellem pockets sums that even Valiant would
deem princely. The multiyear pacts of the two Yankees he reps,
Giambi and Mike Mussina, total almost a quarter of a billion
dollars. You do the math.
When putting power moves on management, Tellem uses as much
muscle as his players. One of his first NBA clients, former
Chicago Bulls guard B.J. Armstrong, affectionately calls Tellem
Meyer Lansky, after the tough Jewish mob financier. Bryant calls
him Hyman Roth, after the Godfather II character patterned on
Lansky. Retired big league pitcher Mark Langston, the first
athlete Tellem ever signed (in 1981), calls him the Master
One of Tellem's most masterful manipulations was his
circumvention of the '96 NBA draft to maneuver the 18-year-old
Bryant to the Lakers. "Basically, I kept teams from picking Kobe
by not giving their coaches access to him," says Tellem, who
learned the backstage moves of NBA front offices during six
years as general counsel for the L.A. Clippers, from 1983 to
'89. "I knew teams would be reluctant to take a chance on a high
schooler without first talking to him and working him out."
(Bryant was picked 13th by Charlotte and immediately traded to
Among Tellem's least masterful moves: the way he stuck his neck
out in a 1990 negotiation on behalf of Hornets draft pick
Kendall Gill and literally got it wrung by the team's irate
general manager, Allan Bristow. Then there was the embarrassment
of getting sued in '98 by a suspended player, Latrell Sprewell,
for having included the standard "moral turpitude" clause in
Sprewell's contract with the Golden State Warriors. Without it,
Sprewell could have choked his coach and still gotten paid. (The
suit was settled out of court, with, appropriately, a gag order
on both parties.)
Each of these episodes caused Tellem great anxiety--which, it
turns out, is his raison d'etre. That and bagels, which are his
raisin d'etre. But two years ago he realized he had to watch his
carbs as well as his fat consumption. His blood pressure was
rising, and so was his weight. By pounding a treadmill to U2
concert footage, weighing himself four times a day and following
a no-bagel diet for more than a year, he dropped 35 pounds. In
the throes of withdrawal, he would ring up his friend Mark
Moskowitz in Pennsylvania and listen while Moskowitz chewed an
onion bagel. "I could hear Arn salivate in ecstasy," Moskowitz
says. "It was his idea of phone sex."
Tellem, who now allows himself scooped-out bagels with low-fat
cream cheese, is down to 155 pounds, which is what he weighed in
the sixth grade. Back then he ate for "entertainment, attention
and stats," he says. He'd chart his daily bagel intake. "I kept
running totals in seven varieties, from onion to pumpernickel.
Same goes for hamburgers and hot dogs. My record was the
17--eight burgers, nine dogs--I ate at Ricky Roisman's 12th
birthday party. But my real soft spot was for liver knishes." It
was quite an experience to watch this tugboat of a boy attack a
tray of knishes at a bar mitzvah. "Other kids worried about
their first kiss," he recalls. "I worried about whether I could
reach 100 in knishes."
I remember this compulsive lover of liver as a budding Duddy
Kravitz with the chutzpah to challenge Mr. Sala, our dreaded
grade-school gym teacher, to a debate over inequities in the
lunchtime hoops league schedule, under which some teams played
the toughest squads more often than others did. Thanks to
Tellem, Mr. Sala compromised and added a day to the schedule.
"Happily," Tellem says, "due to the revised schedule, my team
could have forced a playoff by winning its final game." Sadly,
in that game Tellem missed all 12 shots he took from the floor,
and regulation ended in a scoreless tie. "We lost in overtime,"
he says with a sigh. "The point is that Mr Sala relented, and I
won the case." Tellem had pulled off his first sports negotiation.
Within anyone's life, there are a handful of people who make a
big impression, either favorable or unfavorable. These are folks
you obsess or brood upon. Tellem is one of mine. My memories of
him are as evocative as the mementos in his office, and, for
that matter, the mementos in Memento, a movie in which the
incidents in a man's life unfold backward, like the seconds on
Tellem's desk clock.
Shifting his shoulders inside his linen sports jacket, Tellem,
his wavy hair thinning, looks both boyish and elderly. He bears
a slight resemblance to fictional agent Arliss Michaels, which
is not surprising since the protagonist of the HBO sitcom Arli$$
is partly based on him. Tellem suggested several early story
lines used on the show. In one, Michaels advises Phillies
catcher Mike Lieberthal (a Tellem client) that refusing to play
on Rosh Hashanah will get him endorsement offers from
Manischewitz and Hebrew National.
For all the Arn in Arli$$, there's not a lot of Arliss in Arn.
"Arliss doesn't give a rat's ass about his players," says agent
Martin Lesak. "Arn does." Tellem doesn't sound like a sports
agent, either. He makes none of the small talk that most agents
indulge in, prattling on about all the money they've extracted
from team owners and about how deeply wonderful such and such a
client is. He's a still, focused presence with a perpetual look
Well, maybe still isn't the right word. Even while seated in a
Clearwater, Fla., deli, Tellem's fidgeting verges on torment.
"Arn is forever leaping up, pacing, tapping his feet like he's
got to pee," says Phillies pitcher Randy Wolf, one of 20 major
leaguers Tellem represents. (He also handles 25 minor leaguers.)
"His stress level is at 11. He's incapable of relaxing."
On this morning he's placidly--better make that
semiplacidly--mulling the menu. He's in the Sunshine State to
see his ballplayers in spring training; Nancy and the boys are
along for the ride. Of the 12 diners at the table, Tellem is the
12th to order. "He always has to be last," Nancy says, arching
her brows. "He wants to be presented with every menu option and
make sure his is the best meal possible." After carefully
considering what everybody else will be eating, Tellem makes his
"First, I want a grapefruit in a bowl," he tells the waitress,
like an attorney summing up to a jury. "I want an omelet with
mushrooms and onions, and I want it made with egg whites, no
yolks, and I want the whites well-done. I want you to use Pam
spray on the grill, not butter. And I want two pieces of dry
wheat toast. No butter on them, either. And instead of potatoes,
can I have a side of cottage cheese?"
Nancy listens to all this wearily. "Arn," she says, "I'm not
waiting for your grapefruit to get here before I start eating."
"Nancy," he replies, rocking forward in his chair, "we're not
talking about me asking them to cook something. I ordered
grapefruit! They just have to pull it out of the refrigerator
and cut it in half."
"Arn, we're done talking about this," Nancy says sternly. She's
mistaken, of course. Tellem spends the rest of the meal lamenting
his choice of omelet.
"Every time I've eaten with Arn, he has second-guessed his
order," reports Donnie Walsh, president of the Pacers. "It's
always, 'Why'd you order that? You think it might be better? I
should have gotten what you got.' Then he picks off my plate.
Which is about what he does when he negotiates."
Tellem loves negotiating with the kind of single-minded love
that some aging men have for young women. In the spring of 2001
Tellem protege Joel Wolfe wrangled with the Oakland A's over a
contract extension for Giambi. He called Tellem with an update
from the Oakland stadium. "Before I could say a word, Arn asked
me how many hot dogs I'd eaten and what I'd put on them," Wolfe
says. "If I were a general manager and was about to hammer out a
contract with Arn, I'd have lox and bagels waiting for him. I'd
have a much better chance of getting a deal done."
Surely no sports agent baits a recruiting hook like Tellem.
Catering to an athlete's appetites, he builds entire
presentations around chow. "I enjoy seeing other people eat," he
explains. "I live through them." In 1991 Tellem serenaded
outfielder Doug Glanville, then a senior at Penn, at a campus
hoagie shop. "We just sat in a booth eating subs and had a
conversation," says Glanville, now the Phillies' centerfielder.
"It was easy to feel comfortable with him. No pressure, and that
was a good thing: I felt I had a choice. Arn seemed like a
genuine guy who would look out for my best interests. I knew we
had chemistry. It was chemistry over hoagies."
Brent Barry remembers lunching with Tellem at Planet Hollywood
in Chicago. A waitress spilled an Arnold Palmer--half lemonade,
half iced tea--on Tellem's shirt. "She tried to rub out the
stain, but the shirt was ruined," Barry says. "Arn turned pit
bull." Tellem barked at the waitress, barked at the maitre d',
barked at the manager. "He just wore them down," Barry says.
"The manager agreed to pick up the tab not only for Arn's dry
cleaning but for our food as well. I thought, Imagine what this
guy can do to Jerry Buss."
Tonight is Passover, and Tellem is conducting a spring-training
seder in the ballroom of this hotel in St. Petersburg. Picking
up a Haggadah, he leads friends and family through the ritual
that celebrates the liberation of the Jews from Egypt.
Tellem is an activist in L.A.'s Jewish community, and he helps
support Seeds of Peace, a nonprofit organization that each
summer brings Arab and Israeli teens together at a camp in
Maine. In July his 17-year-old son, Mike, will work there as a
counselor, and a half dozen of his players will give hoops
clinics. "So much of what happens in basketball involves issues
of race," says Tellem. "One of my hopes is that seeing race from
another perspective will open players' eyes."
Tellem is well versed in Hebrew scripture. When he held rookie
J.R. Rider out of the Minnesota Timberwolves' training camp in
'93, he wrote to team president Bob Stein and quoted a parable
from the Talmud: "A father sends a message to his son: 'Please
come home.' The son tells the messenger, 'No, I cannot.' When
the messenger returns, the father instructs him to go back to
the son and say, 'Come as far as you can. I will come the rest
of the way.'" Stein's reply began, Dear Rabbi Tellem....
So, Rabbi, why is this night in Florida different from all other
nights? Because Israel has launched an offensive into the
occupied territories. When table talk turns to Israeli prime
minister Ariel Sharon, who ordered the attack, Tellem says
sharply, "Sharon is the most myopic negotiator I've ever seen.
He doesn't have short-term objectives, much less an endgame.
Instead of balancing interests on both sides in the hope of
coming to an agreement, he's playing a zero-sum game, trying to
win everything. He's not dealing with the beyond."
Tellem's credo: Even during particularly stubborn negotiations,
never humiliate or embarrass your adversary. "When the stronger
side tries to impose its will, it makes a big mistake," he says.
"Ultimately, the stage is set for a payback."
Bristow imposed more than his will on Tellem. Twelve years ago,
during negotiations for Gill, Tellem's rope-a-dope stance,
refusing to react to Bristow's proposals, frustrated the 6'7"
general manager so much that he grabbed the 5'8" agent by the
throat and slammed him against an office wall. "Bristow told the
press that we'd had a 'heated, eye-to-eye discussion,'" Tellem
says, laughing. "That's true, but he lifted me a foot off the
floor to conduct it." Afterward Tellem, shaking, phoned Nancy.
"You won't believe what happened," he said. "He choked me. He
"Arn, are you nuts?" said Nancy. "Get out of there."
"I'd like to, but I can't," he said. "I haven't finished
The deal was done a few days later, but only after Charlotte
agreed to give Gill the option to leave after three seasons.
Which he did. "It was one of the few times in my life I promised
myself there would be a payback," Tellem says righteously. "I
paid Bristow back, in full."
The Tellems' Patio
The sports agent and his wife, the network president, pace the
backyard of their Pacific Palisades home in concentric circles,
cellphones cocked to their ears. He's putting together a shoe
deal for Garciaparra; she, a new contract with David Letterman.
They circle and talk, side by side, hands waving as if they'd
just walked into a wall of cobwebs. Their voices get softer and
softer until the yard is filled with low murmurings. You can't
As a couple, Arn and Nancy complement each other neatly.
Whenever he spins off into his own strange orbit, she plays
Ground Control and talks him down to earth. "Nancy runs my
life," says Arn, whose players earn only a few hundred million
dollars a year less than the budget she commands at CBS, "and
I'm a source of more stress for her."
The Tellems met cute, as they say in Hollywood. In 1974, the
year of Richard Nixon's impeachment hearings, both were summer
interns in Washington, D.C. Nancy, a Cal junior from San
Francisco, worked for Oakland congressman Ron Dellums. Arn, a
sophomore at Haverford who was, he says, "obsessed with getting
Nixon," got hired by another California representative, Jerome
Waldie, a member of the House Judiciary Committee, after
bombarding him with term papers he had written on Tricky Dick.
One day Arn, in a madras jacket, was sunning himself on the
steps of an office building near the Capitol when he felt a
sharp pain in his back. "Nancy had kicked me," he says. "I
looked at her, and she said, 'That's one horrible-looking sports
jacket. Where'd you get it?' That was it. I was smitten."
Nancy wasn't. She kept Madras Man at a distance. But Arn found
out that Nancy regularly visited her Aunt Rosie in Philly, and
he started taking the same train up from Washington. "It took me
a while to catch on," Nancy says. "After the third time it was
like, Who the hell is this person?"
"At that moment she realized I was desperate and pathetic," Arn
says. When Nancy returned to Berkeley, he launched a phone
campaign. "He'd call and call," she says.
"I negotiated the relationship by focusing on building blocks,"
he says. "I never wanted to put her in a situation where she'd
say no." After a couple of months, he stepped up the assault.
"My position was one of total weakness," he says. "The situation
required cunning and daring and a tremendous act of courage."
One night Arn got up enough of all three to call Nancy and
announce that he would be flying out to Frisco over the
Christmas break. "I figured he'd stay a few days," she recalls.
"He stayed three weeks."
"That final week Nancy let me stay with her," he says. "I just
wore her down, and eventually I found her terms."
A Philadelphian in exile, Tellem has dragged me down to a Santa
Monica delicatessen where, to his delight, the menu once had an
egg-white omelet named in his honor. "If you add grilled
mushrooms and onions, it has a lot of similarities to a Philly
cheese steak," he says.
Izzy's is where Tellem first met Sonny Vaccaro, the self-styled
Don Corleone of sneakers. Vaccaro, then of Nike, now of Adidas,
was such an Izzy's regular that he set up shop in one of the
booths. He and Tellem hashed out Cheryl Miller's first shoe deal
there. "I knew right away that Sonny was a guy I wanted to be
friends with," Tellem says. "He had his office at a deli and a
sandwich named after him."
Vaccaro recommended Tellem to advisers for both McGrady and
O'Neal when they were in high school. "I've always been open
about my relationship with Sonny--he's one of my closest
friends," Tellem says. "One of my strengths as an agent has been
great relationships with owners, G.M.'s, coaches, players'
unions and all the big shoe companies. I've gotten player
recommendations from every one of them."
No basketball agent seems to have better relations with hotly
touted teenagers than Tellem. Seven of the NBA players he reps
bypassed college. Commissioner David Stern has floated the idea
of making the NBA the first pro league to ban players under 20.
"Stern's proposal is grossly unfair," says Tellem in a hectoring
tone. "Declaring yourself eligible for the draft isn't a crime,
it's a career choice, yet the NBA and the NCAA [would rather]
indenture teen prodigies to colleges as unpaid professionals.
Their purpose is not to encourage education but to protect the
Tellem has been accused of being too fiercely protective of his
clients, some of whom turn up in lineups penciled in by police
instead of managers. The full-court press he adopts in their
defense, and his tendency to paint them as victims--after
Cleveland Indians outfielder Albert Belle threw a ball at a
photographer, Tellem implied the photographer had invaded
Belle's pregame privacy--has led critics to tar him as an
enabler. "I don't think athletes should be expected to be role
models," he says. "We should view them as what they are: great
athletes. They're real people with real problems."
Much of his time is devoted to those very problems: paternity
claims, divorce proceedings, custody battles, criminal
complaints, personal lawsuits, psychological maladies. "My
clients are grown men who make their own decisions," Tellem
says. "Even if they make the wrong ones, I stand behind them and
Good Samaritan Hospital
Team Tellem has had its share of bad boys, but it also has
included clients as goofy as Tellem himself. One exceedingly
green outfielder from the Ozarks asked Tellem, "What are these
things called credit cards? I'd like to buy stuff with them."
Tellem explained the basics of the credit system, including the
fact that statements are mailed once a month. The player stared
at Tellem in disbelief and said, "You mean you have to pay?"
But of all the mutts in Tellem's kennel, none scratched a bigger
hole in his heart than Rex (Wonder Dog) Hudler, the journeyman
infielder known as baseball's greatest gamer. Tellem used to
keep a newspaper clipping in his wallet from Hudler's days in
the Japanese League. Hudler had stunned teammates on the Yakult
Swallows with a mad-dog prank. The headline read, CRAZY AMERICAN
To finalize Hudler's free-agent contract with the Swallows,
Tellem had to call Yakult officials from a hospital bed. He had
undergone bypass surgery three days before. "I told Arn, 'Come
on, man, wait until you feel better,'" says Hudler, now a
broadcaster for the Anaheim Angels. "Arn said, 'I can't. By then
the team may sign somebody else.' A lot of agents take care of
their big boys first. Arn takes care of everybody equally."
When the Swallows released Hudler after the 1993 season, Tellem
worked the Angels. And worked them. Just before Opening Day in
'94, the Angels signed Hudler for the league minimum, but with
an innovative incentive clause Tellem had cooked up: $1,000 for
every plate appearance. "Arn had a hunch I'd work my tail off to
get in games," Hudler says, "and he was right." Coming home from
a rough game, Hudler would grouse to his wife, Jennifer, "I went
0 for 5 today."
"That's O.K.," she'd say. "We're five grand richer." Wonder Dog
went to the plate 136 times that season. Ka-ching!
In front of Hudler's home in Tustin, Calif., is a flagpole. At
its base is a plaque. Inscribed on the plaque are the words BUILT
BY ARN TELLEM.
After graduating from Michigan Law School, Tellem has landed a
job at Manatt, Phelps, Rothenberg & Tunney, the L.A. firm at
which Steve Greenberg, son of Tellem's Hall of Fame hero,
practices sports law. "Arn got stuck doing tax and litigation
stuff, which he hated," says Greenberg. "He did just badly
enough so no other partner would work with him."
While paging through the job listings in the L.A. Daily Journal,
Tellem stumbles upon an ad: WANTED: SPORTS ATTORNEY. The
employer is the Clippers.
I happen to drop by Tellem's office that day. He hands me a
letter opener and asks me to slit a hole in a basketball. "I'm
sending out a resume," he more or less explains. The idea is to
jam his curriculum vitae inside the ball before having it
messengered off to the Clippers' offices.
The ruse piques the interest of team owner Donald Sterling, who
asks Tellem to come in for an interview. What intrigues Sterling
most is the summer job Tellem took after his freshman year of
college: selling appliances at a discount department store. "My
strategy for selling air conditioners fascinated Sterling," says
Tellem, who got the Clip job on the spot and added it to his
duties at Manatt, Phelps. "Other salesmen just wanted to get
purchases over with, but I spent time talking to customers, and
they not only bought more expensive units but went away
happier." Tellem was the store's top air conditioner salesman
I'm walking through the terminal on my way to a flight when I
run smack into Tellem. Manacled to his left wrist is an attache
case. "What's inside?" I ask.
"Stats," he says. The stats are from Tellem's Super League, made
up of the best cards from nearly every edition of APBA Baseball.
An APBA junkie since age eight, he has about as much control
over his habit as a knuckleballer has over his pitch on a windy
day. When Arn and Nancy are out of their house at night, he
leaves the case open, so burglars can see that it contains
nothing of value. "They can have the TV, they can have the
money, they can have our lives, just please leave the records."
It gets worse. On his wedding night Tellem propped his treasured
1938 Greenberg card on the nightstand next to the conjugal bed.
Nancy asked what he was up to. "I always sleep with Hank next to
my bed at night," Arn said.
"Not anymore," said Nancy.
A compromise was reached--sort of. "I moved Hank," Arn reveals,
"to a drawer where she couldn't see him."
Tellem is almost as nutty about his 12-team baseball fantasy
league. In '82 Tellem decided his team needed speed, and he
became fixated on acquiring Omar Moreno, the National League's
leading base stealer. Alas, Jeff Wernick, a fellow lawyer with
the rights to the Pittsburgh Pirates centerfielder, refused to
trade him. "Arn began a relentless pursuit of Omar," Wernick,
who now works for Tellem, recalls. "He'd phone me every waking
hour, offering endless permutations of the same transaction.
Arn's concentration, his unwillingness to walk away without
proposing yet another variation, was staggering. After three
weeks I just caved. Arn got what he wanted." Amazingly, Tellem
labored just as hard on a fantasy league deal as he does now on
a $120 million free-agent pact.
His creative deal making had its greatest flowering in 1997,
when he pitched slugger Albert Belle to Reinsdorf. He came to
the White Sox owner's office with a 50-page statistical
projection of Chicago run production if Belle batted behind
Frank Thomas. "The study compared them with every great power
duo from Ruth and Gehrig on," says Reinsdorf. "I thought, What
awesome stats! It was very persuasive." So persuasive that Belle
came away with a five-year, $55 million contract, then the
largest in baseball history. Tellem even got in an unprecedented
risk-free escape clause: If, after two seasons, Belle's yearly
salary was no longer among the top three in the game, he would
have 30 days to find a higher bidder. If Belle got no bites, he
could return to the Sox and play out the remaining three years
of the contract.
"Arn sold me on the clause by explaining it would be good for me
too," Reinsdorf says. "It gave me an escape plan if Albert
didn't work out." Indeed, Belle didn't. "Two years later, he was
very unpopular with our fans," says Reinsdorf. And underpaid.
Belle tested the waters and got a better offer--five years for
$65 million--from the Baltimore Orioles. When he retired two
years later with a bad hip, the O's still owed him $39 million.
"The irony is that I felt terrible at the time for taking Albert
to the Orioles," says Tellem, "but given Albert's health, I did
a great mitzvah for Reinsdorf."
The Tellems' Kitchen
Harry Litwack, the legendary Temple basketball coach, is
answering callers' questions on Philly radio. Twelve-year-old
Arn Tellem finds inspiration in Litwack, this short Jewish
fellow who looks like Arn's grandfather. Maybe Arn, too, can
achieve something in sports.
While he's on hold, Arn thinks up about a million basketball
questions for Litwack, but when it's his turn to talk, all he can
blurt out is, "What's your favorite food?"
"Milk," says Litwack. "I have an ulcer."
Nearly four decades later, Eric Tellem has none of his father's
childhood inhibitions. "Shaq," he asks, "can I have your shoes?"
Eric, at age eight already one of the world's most persistent
collectors of sports memorabilia, is sitting courtside at the
Staples Center. Shaquille O'Neal, shooting around before a
Lakers exhibition game, turns to him and says, "Later, Little
Shaq knows Eric well. Little Tellem is the squirty sidekick of
Shaq's teammate Kobe. At the half, Eric tries again: "Shaq, can
I have your shoes?" The 7'1" center puts a finger to his lips
and says, "Later." With only a few minutes left in the game and
O'Neal lumbering toward the bench, Eric takes a last, desperate
shot: "Shaq, can I have your shoes?" Wearily, O'Neal takes off
his size-24 sneakers, hands them to Eric and walks off the floor
in his socks.
Eric is the most outgoing of the Tellem men. "The kid's
confidence is awesome!" says Oakland A's ace Barry Zito, a
Tellem client. He met Eric last November at Matty Tellem's bar
mitzvah. "Eric came up to me and said, 'Barry, how are you
doing? Really glad you could be here. Just make yourself
comfortable and eat something.' He'll be unstoppable if he
becomes an agent."
It wouldn't surprise anyone. "Arn has integrated his boys into
the agency," says Vaccaro. "They're a recruiting base for him."
Though Arn doesn't hang out with his clients, his sons do. They
get batting tips from Giambi, defensive pointers from McGrady,
lessons in deportment from Belle.
But seriously, folks...Belle was baseball's biggest hothead. Yet
of all the athletes Tellem has repped, Belle may be his
favorite. "I judge players by how they get along with my kids,
and none has ever been more popular in my household than
Albert," he says. "When he's in town, he comes over to the house
and plays chess with Matty or video games with Mike, with Eric
on his lap. Plus, he got me back into eating oatmeal like I used
to in sixth grade."
Oatmeal, Tellem reminds you, is supposed to reduce cholesterol.
"My father wasn't there for my bar mitzvah. My big thing is to be
around for all three of my kids' bar mitzvahs. If I make that
goal, I'll set a new one--maybe the weddings."
You get the impression that Tellem's sons are the main reason he
won't even contemplate retirement. "I enjoy representing
players," he says, "but it helps motivate me that I'll be able
to offer my kids the opportunity to work where I work."
One night Eric sits in front of his bedroom mirror, sprucing
himself up for college basketball's Wooden Awards, at the
Biltmore Hotel. He is fresh off his backstage success at the
Grammys, where he schmoozed with Janet Jackson, Gwen Stefani,
Alicia Keys, Bob Dylan and Bono. For his next move, he wants to
meet Duke's Jay Williams and get him to sign a basketball. Arn
wants to meet Williams, too, and get the college player of the
year to sign a contract. "Don't get your hopes up," Arn tells
his son. "It might not happen."
"We've got to try," says Eric, patting Dad on the back. Then,
running a brush through his gelled hair, Little Tellem gazes
approvingly in the mirror and announces, "I love this business!"
"The one thing Arn brings to the table is a little decency,"
Barry says. "In a sea of sharks, he's a gefilte fish."
Tellem's credo: Even during a particularly stubborn negotiation,
never humiliate or embarrass your adversary.